THE SOUND OF SHEER SILENCE – Authentic silence is religious silence

To you, I consecrate this practice of Gospel Silence,
which is that heavenly Hymn, which,
like everything proper to you,
on the harmonious and sacred Harp,
mysteriously sang the Holy David:
Te decet hymun, Deus in Sion. 

Esortazioni al Silensio Cristiano (1715)
Fr. Elias of Saint Joseph
Discalced Carmelite

Silence is often the “place” within which God awaits us: by these means we will be able to listen to Him instead of listening to the noise of our own voice.

The book of Exodus tells how God appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai in the full splendour of His glory: the whole mountain shook violently, Moses spoke and God answered Him between the thunder and lightning (Exodus. 19:16-22). All the people who hear were impressed by the power and the majesty of God. Although there are other similar theophanies that mark the history of Israel [See, for example, Genesis 18:1-15; 1 Kings 18, 20-40; Isaiah 6:1-13.], most of the time God manifested himself to his people in a different manner: not in the splendour of the light, but within the silence, within darkness.

Jezebel and Ahab meeting Elijah, print by Sir Francis Dicksee
Jezebel and Ahab meeting Elijah

A few centuries later Moses, the prophet Elijah, having to go on the run from Jezebels’ persecution, begins yet another journey towards a holy mountain, impelled by God. Hidden in a cave, the prophet sees the same signs of theophany we just read about in Exodus: the earthquake, the hurricane, the fire; however God wasn’t there. After the fire, says the scripture writer, “there was a murmur of a light wind.” Elijah covered his face with his cloak and went out to meet God. It was then that God spoke to him (cf. 1 Kings 19:9-18). The Hebrew text literally says that Elijah heard “a sound of soft murmuring (qôl dĕmãmâ daqqâ)”. Though various phenomena, such as wind, storms, earthquakes, fire, accompany the divine presence, they do not always constitute the presence itself which, like the “silent sound,” is mysterious and ultimately ungraspable. Moses and Elijah, the two figures who experienced God’s theophany on this mountain, reappear with Jesus on another mountain at His transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–9; Mark 9:2–9; Luke 9:28–36).

The Greek Vulgate is a version of the Bible of the Septuagint and the Vulgate translated the “soft murmuring” as “a light wind”, probably to avoid the apparent contradiction between noise or voice, on the one hand, and silence, on the other. Yet the word dĕmãmâ really translates as silence. With this paradox, the sacred author suggests, therefore, that silence is not empty, but full of the divine presence. Silence shelters the mystery of God. And Scripture invites us to enter into this silence if we want to converse and encounter Him.

“How light is the whisper we perceive”

We therefore ask ourselves “How light is the whisper which we can perceive?” Speaking about God in this matter is somewhat difficult. The psalms express this far more eloquently than I ever could: “God, do not be silent; God, do not be deaf or remain unmoved!” (Psalm 83:2). “Why do you hide your face?” (Psalm 44:25). “Why should the nations say,Where is their God?” (Psalm 115:2). Where is their God? would imply that God cannot help them.  Through the sacred text God Himself asks the same questions that are upon our lips and within our hearts: He wants and needs us to ask them, He wants us to meditate upon the questions within the foundry of prayer. These are very important questions. On the one hand, in view of the fact that they refer directly to the way God perpetually reveals himself, to his logic: which should help us understand how we may search for His countenance, how to listen out for His voice. And on the other hand, for the reason that it demonstrate our difficulty in simply grasping God’s close proximity to us, especially during our struggles and distressing situations within our lives, it’s an experience that is common to both believers and non-believers albeit it takes different forms in each one. Faith and a life of grace do not automatically make God evident: even a believer will sometimes experience a sensation of an apparent absence of God. 

Patience faith rewardSo why would God want to remain silent? The scriptures often present us with descriptions of His silence, his distance, but always as a consequence of man’s own infidelities. In Deuteronomy, for example, we receive one explanation as to why: “… then this people will prostitute themselves by following the foreign gods among whom they will live in the land they are about to enter. They will forsake me and break the covenant which I have made with them. At that time my anger will flare up against them; I will forsake them and hide my face from them; they will become a prey to be devoured, and much evil and distress will befall them. At that time they will indeed say, “Is it not because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us? Yet I will surely hide my face at that time because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods.” (Deuteronomy 31:16-18). Here then is our answer, sin and idolatry, are like a veil which obscure’s God from our sight, it prevents us from recognising him; it’s like a white noise which prevents us from listening to His voice. But, God awaits us patiently, behind that screen that we ourselves erected between Him and us, waiting for that one moment of opportunity enabling Him one again to meet us. “I will not remain angry with you; For I am merciful, oracle of the Lord, I will not keep my anger forever.” (Jeremiah 3:12). Therefore, as often happens, it’s not God who stops speaking to us, but us who do not allow Him speak, we cannot hear him, because there is too much noise within our own lives. “This isn’t just a physical deafness, which largely dissects mankind from social life. This day and age we seem to suffer from a weakened hearing towards God. We simply can’t hear Him anymore; there are too many different frequencies which bombard our ears every minute and every hour of the day. What is said about Him seems pre-scientific to us, He no longer seems suitable or adapted for our generation and our times. With this enfeeblement of hearing, or more accurately our deafness towards God, the ability to speak with Him or to Him is naturally lost to us. However, we seem to be missing a decisive piece necessary for our full understanding. Our inner senses are in danger of extinguishing for ever. With the disappearance of this awareness and understanding, the range of our sphere of relationship with our reality in general is then perilously and significantly restricted.”

Yet sometimes it is not mankind who doesn’t hear God: it seems rather, as though He isn’t listening to us, on occasions it is He who remainins quiescent and taciturn. The book of Job, for example, gives us a good example that sometimes even the prayers of the righteous ones during times of their adversity, that God remains silent for a time, and the righteous person is left without a response from God. “… a whisper of a word we hear of him: Who can comprehend the thunder of his power?” (Job 26:14). This daily experience of humanity also demonstrates to what extent we need to receive just a word or help from God, yet every now and then this word for us seems as though it remains suspended in space. At times it may also become difficult for us to perceive the mercy of God, of which the Scriptures and the catechesis speak so much, for those people who find themselves in painful situations, marked by illness or injustice, for which even prayer does not seem to elicit a response. Why isn’t God listening to us you may ask yourself? Why, if He is our Father, does he not come to our aid, after all it is within His capacity to do so? 

Our distance from God, and obscurity from Him, is a problem felt by everyone. It is felt God not listeningmore intensely today than it has ever been; we too, who strive to be believers, often have the sensation that the reality of God has seeped through our fingers. How often do we ask ourselves, why does He continues to remain immersed within the overwhelming silence of this world? Do we not sometimes after some reflection get the impression that, only words are left, while the reality of God has become even more distant than ever?

More than in any other experience in our lives, the centre of all Revelation is the story of Jesus himself, the one that introduces us with greater depth into the great mystery of God’s silence. To Jesus, who is the first and true embodiment of righteousness, a faithful servant, the Beloved son, was not spared the sufferings and passion of the Cross. His prayer in Gethsemane receives the sending of an angel in reply to console him, but not a release from the impending torture and agony. Nor can we avoid being surprised that Jesus repeats the phrase in Psalm 22 whilst in torment on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish?” (Psalm 22:2). The fact that He who had never known sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) has experienced suffering in this manner highlights that the pain that sometimes dramatically marks the life of humanity cannot be interpreted as a sign of disapproval from of God, nor his silence as an absence or of a distancing.

“God is known in his silence”

not sinned
John 9:1-2

As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth, the apostles ask a question that highlights a very common way of how humanity thinks: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1-2). Even if it is strange to hear these words today, in reality the question is not so far from our mentality today, according to which suffering, whatever it may be, is seen as due to a blind destiny from which there is no other option than resignation, after failed attempts to cancel it. Jesus corrects the apostles: “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him” (John 9:3). Sometimes God remains silent, apparently inactive and indifferent to our fate, because he wants to enter into our soul. Only in this manner, for example, can we understood that He allows the suffering of St. Joseph, perplexed before the unexpected pregnancy of Mary a virgin (cf. Matthew 1:18-20), Joseph having “planned” things somewhat and altogether differently. God was preparing Joseph for something greater. He “never disturbs the joy of his children, if it is not to prepare them for a far safer and greater joy”.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote that “whoever has understood the words of the Lord

Ignazio di Antioca Lettera ai
Letter of Ignatius to the Ephesisans

understands his silence, because the Lord knows him in his silence” [Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, XV, 2.] Often the silence of God, is for man the “place”, the possibility and the premise to listen to God, instead of listening only to himself. Without the silent voice of God in prayer, “the human self ends up closing in on itself, and his conscience, which should always be an echo of the voice of God, reducing the risks of being a mirror of oneself, so that the inner conversation becomes a monologue giving rise to a thousand self-justifications”. Come to think of it, if God spoke and intervened continuously in our lives to solve all of our problems, even you would have to admit that it would begin to trivialise His presence and His intervention. Would we not end up like the two brothers in the Parable of the Lost Son (cf. Luke 15:11-32), preferring to squander our inheritance on a life of self-indulgence above the joy’s of living with Him?

Silence is capable of digging an inner expanse within the depths of ourselves, making room for God dwell int, so that his Word will always remain within us, so that our love for Him may take root in our minds and hearts, and animate our lives. With study and confident prayer, despite all of our difficulties, humanity rids itself of self-sufficiency; puts its inner resources into action; he will notice how community relationships with others are strengthened. This silence of God, the fact that He does not always intervene immediately to resolve all the things we want and in the way we would like, awakens the power of human freedom; it calls upon humanity to take charge of their own lives and responsibility of others, and of their genuine needs. For this reason, faith is “a force which, within the silence and without clamour, changes the world and transforms it into the Kingdom of God, the expression of faith being prayer. God cannot change things without our conversion, and our true conversion begins with a “cry” from the depths of our soul, which pleads for forgiveness and deliverance.”

Fear no evil for thou are with meIn Jesus’ teachings, prayer appears as a dialogue between man as the son and our Father in Heaven, and in which the question occupies an extremely important place (cf. Luke 11:5-11; Matthew 7:7-11). Children know that their Father will always listens to them, but what is assured to them is not so much a sort of exit strategy from suffering or illness, so much as the gift of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13). The answer with which God always comes to help humanity is the gift of Love through the Holy Spirit. This may not seem much to us, but it is a much more precious and vital gift than any earthly solution to problems could ever be. It is a gift that must be accepted in faith, dutiful and respectful appropriate from a son or daughter, although it does not eliminate the need for human efforts to face moments of difficulties. With God the “dark clouds” which sometimes cover our clear blue skies and sunshine do not automatically clear up; we continue to walk, perhaps somewhat fearfully, but with a fear filled with confidence: “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Psalm 23:4).

This way of God doing His thing, awakens man’s resolve and trust, it is recognised in the way in which God accomplished his revelation throughout history. Think of the story of Abraham call and migration. Abraham leaves his country and sets out en route to an unknown land; trusting in the divine promise, without knowing where God is leading him (see. Genesis 12:1-4); or to the trust of the People of Israel in the salvation of God, even when all human hopes seem to have set (see Esther 4:17); or the serene flight of the Holy Family to Egypt (see Matthew 2:13-15) when God seems to bow to the whims of a tyrannical ruler … In this sense, to think that faith was easier for a witnesses of the life of Jesus which does not seem to correspond to reality, because not even these witnesses had been spared the seriousness of having to make the decision as to weather to believe or not believe in Him, to recognise in Him the presence and actions of God. There are numerous passages in the New Testament in which it is clearly seen that this decision was never a foregone conclusion.

Yesterday as today, granted that Revelation from God offers credible signs of authenticity, the inaccessible veil of God has not been altogether eliminated; his silences continue to challenge humanity. Human existence is a journey of faith and, as such, proceeds more in the partially shaded outer region of the shadow, than in the full light of day, not without its own moments of darkness. As long as we are down here, our relationship with God occurs more through listening than by sight . This is not only due to the fact that God is far greater than our intelligence, but also to the logic of call and response, of gift and task, with which He wishes to guide our history: that of everyone and the personal one of each. We are after-all, in a reciprocal relationship in the manner in which God reveals Himself and the freedom we have because we are made in his image. The revelation of God remains in a light-dark contrast which allows us the freedom to choose to open ourselves to Him or to remain closed within our own self-sufficiency. God is “He is a king with a heart of flesh, like yours; He is the author of the universe and of every creature, but He does not lord it over us. He begs us to give Him a little love, as He silently shows us His wounds.” [St. Josemaria Escrivá. Christ is passing by. Chap. 18, §179. Four Courts, Dublin, 1974].


nailsWith His prayer on the Cross – “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46) — Jesus makes the cry of humanity His own, suffering from the apparent absence of God and who direct this cry toward the Father’s heart. Praying in this manner in this last solitude, in unison with all of humanity, which opens God’s heart to us. Indeed, the psalm with which Jesus cries out to the Father gives rise, among the laments, a great prospect of hope (cf. Psalm 22:20-32); a prospect which is laid out before His eyes, even in full agony. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46), Jesus says to the Father before he breathed his last. Jesus knows that the sacrifice of his life does not fall upon deaf ears, yet changes history forever, although it seem as though evil and death have the last word. His silence on the Cross has an even greater force than the cries of those who condemned him. “Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelations 21:5).

Unknown-1Faith is also a manifestation of our belief in Him, believing that He truly loves us, that He is alive, that He is able to intervene incomprehensible, that He never abandons us, that He draws good out of evil with His power and His infinite creativity. It means believing that He advances victoriously in history, which signifies that the Kingdom of God is already present in this world, and is progressing everywhere. With His silences, God makes His faith and hope grow within us: He makes them anew, and with them He makes “all things new”. It is up to each and every one of us to respond to the gentle silence of God with our attentive silence, a silence which listens, to discover just how, the Lord works mysteriously within our hearts, and what of this cloud, the method of the Holy Spirit to veil our mystery. This cloud within us, within our lives, is styled silence. Silence is precisely the cloud that veils the mystery of our relationship with the Lord, of our holiness and of our sins.